Tommy and Disability Narratives – My Fave is more than Problematic

As I blogged about yesterday, I can’t listen to Tommy (the Rock Opera by The Who) any more. Introducing kids to music I loved as a teenager is a key nostalgic benefit of parenting, and unusually, they liked it a lot, my kids jamming out to Pinball Wizard. And then … the lyrics filtered into my consciousness and I realized that the album was done for me.

On the other hand, it’s fascinating to have such a problematic take on disability occupy such a central position in the history of rock, film, and theater. Here’s a good article by Mohamed Khamis on the content and the debate about the issue at the time:

Townshend makes clear his reasons for choosing an autistic boy as the hero of his rock opera, but his justification may actually perpetuate the disablist tenor that underlies Tommy. In the CD liner notes to the 1996 digitally remastered version, Townshend explains, “…the hero had to be deaf, dumb and blind so that seen from our already limited point of view, his limitations would be symbolic of our own.” Townshend uses Tommy’s disability as a metaphor for our own spiritual impotence. Tommy’s subsequent recuperation, then, provides proof that we can transcend our limited corporeal mentality and experience an infinite metaphysical reality. But by doing this, Townshend essentially pigeonholes those with disabilities as incompetent, as having limitations that are universally recognized. If so-called “able” people are supposed to relate with Tommy to recognize their own spiritual faults, with whom should the disabled listener relate? Townshend’s argument is flawed because it classifies the disabled as those with whom “ordinary” people should relate their faults.

The author continues:

While I have already posited that Townshend is guilty of employing an array of disability stereotypes to support his narrative, I think that some of these warrant special attention. In his book Everybody Belongs, Arthur Shapiro (1999) contends that some people prejudicially believe that blind people can develop a sixth sense; Tommy clearly works to perpetuate this stereotype. In “Pinball Wizard,” undoubtedly the most popular and best-known song on the album, Townshend writes that Tommy “plays by intuition” because he lacks the ability to see or hear. Such lyrics lead the listeners to believe that Tommy has a special ability, perhaps a supernatural ability, that other human’s lack; these lyrics also help form misconceptions about blind people. Similarly, Rose and Kiger (1995) state some common stereotypes about deaf people, among which are immaturity and inability to reason. The description of Tommy in the song “Christmas” leads me to believe that Townshend also subscribes to these stereotypes. Townshend sings, “Playing proxy pinball/[Tommy] picks his nose and smiles and/pokes his tongue at everything.” These lyrics portray Tommy as infantile, not as someone who is deaf and blind. In the rock opera, Townshend also relies on the assumption that disabled people are miserable, that they want nothing more than to be cured and become “normal.” This attitude is evident in “There’s a Doctor,” in which Tommy’s father cries, “There’s a man I’ve found/Could bring us all joy!/There’s a doctor I’ve found/Could cure the boy!…There’s a man I’ve found/Could remove his sorrow.” Some do not realize that not everyone with disability strives to become “normal,” and not everyone with a disability is in the constant state of depression these lyrics suggest. 

The whole article is, I think, thoughtful and well written.

Leave a Reply